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Daring to take a dip in that dirty water

The public was able to swim in the Charles River for several hours because of the Charles River Conservancy efforts to make the river swimmable over the last few years.
The public was able to swim in the Charles River for several hours because of the Charles River Conservancy efforts to make the river swimmable over the last few years.

Nothing was going to keep the steady stream of eager swimmers — and one snorkeler — who arrived Tuesday at the Charles River from jumping into the once-murky waters to beat the heat. Scoffers and Sixties rock songs be damned.

More than 125 people signed up to take a dip in a marked-off section of the Charles, next to a wooden dock at the edge of the Esplanade in Boston, as part of a CitySplash summer swim organized by the Charles River Conservancy.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” said Renata von Tscharner, president of the conservancy, which is hosting two such swims this year.


Despite what he described as a “little bit of a smell” wafting from the water, Jed Breed, 31, was glad to have an opportunity to cool off.

“It was great, it was warm, it was clean-ish,” said Breed, who took a break from his job in Cambridge to enjoy the water.

Last year, organizers hosted the swim events on two Saturdays. But in order to cater to a different crowd, they offered a midweek dunk this time. The second swim will happen July 25. Preregistration is required.

Douglas Bond brought two pool noodles with him. He just wanted to relax while bobbing.

“The river is evidently real nice,” Bond said.

The Charles River has long had a reputation for being polluted, as noted by the Standells in their mid-’60s hit “Dirty Water.” But the conservancy has banded with government agencies to raise the water quality, enough so that the river is safe to swim in, though swimming is generally discouraged except for these events.

“This now is the cleanest urban river,” von Tscharner said as people splashed in the background. “When people hear the song, ‘Love that dirty water,’ they think this is not a safe activity — but it is, and we want to show them that it’s safe, and it’s fun.”


It’s the third year the events have been held. The first public community swim in the Charles in more than 50 years was held in 2013 by the conservancy, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and another group.

The US Environmental Protection Agency gave the river a B-plus rating in May for water quality. The grade was down slightly from last year, but still good enough to allow for recreational swimming.

Von Tscharner said the goal is to have a permanent swimming location on the Charles, something that could happen within the next few years.

If that were the case, Back Bay resident Tim Sullivan, 39, would be a repeat customer.

“It would be great if they did this more often,” Sullivan said. “I would be happy if any day you wanted to, it was OK to jump into the river.”

Barbara Grandbreg did the backstroke in the Charles River during CitySplash at the Esplanade. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
More than 100 people signed up to swim in a cordoned-off section of the river. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
Karen Edlund relaxed on the dock before taking a dip in the Charles on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveAnnear.